BANNED! But Is There Still Hope?

The collection of ornamental fish in Hawaii: BANNED. The collection and sale of live rock and coral from Fiji: BANNED. The permits for shipping...
  1. BANNED! But Is There Still Hope?

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    Having a tank like this resplendent with full colonies will take longer in the future since if the bans continue most new tanks will need to start off with frags.

    The collection of ornamental fish in Hawaii: BANNED. The collection and sale of live rock and coral from Fiji: BANNED. The permits for shipping coral, anemones and live rock from Indonesia: HALTED and now going on its second month. Two major bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef leading to an estimated loss of 50% or more of the coral cover during two of the last three years. Needless to say these headlines do not produce a whole lot of optimism about the long-term prospects for the hobby. From my point of view, it seems like a number of factors are presently at work to reduce the likelihood that the hobby will continue growing and thriving at its present pace. These include misguided government interventions, a misunderstanding of the facts regarding the collection of fish and corals for the hobby and the positive economic impact some aspects of the hobby have on the exporting countries and overzealous “protectors” of the reef who do not appreciate how much we care about the reef and how many of the things we have learned may in the long run help to replenish or repopulate the reef. This may also help instill future generations with the same love of the reef that we have. While some of the intentions for why these restrictions and outright bans are happening may be well-meaning, sadly I think that in the long run they will produce the opposite effect.

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    Sights like this dealer's tank full of maricultured colonies from Indonesia will be a thing of the past.

    Before continuing, I should point out that the hobby facing bleak prospects is not a new phenomenon, but in fact, has occurred several times in the past. In the mid-1990’s I actually gave a talk at MACNA that was kind of a pep talk, as most of us in the hobby then also felt that the hobby was facing a dark future and no one was even sure if it would last until the turn of the century. Around the time of my talk, Hawaii had shut down the collection of live rock and the removal of any invertebrates from its waters, Florida had shut down the collection of live rock, corals had been banned from their waters for even longer, and the Solomon Islands, then a major supplier of corals, had had a major upheaval and had stopped shipping fish and corals. As a result, many of the sources for live rock and coral that we had used previously were gone, so the concern was how would the hobby continue. So when I gave my talk at MACNA and tried to point out all of the positive things that were going on, it was met with shall we say a bit of skepticism, which I understood. And to be honest, I thought at least a little, that I was whistling past the graveyard as well, as no one knew the future and it did look pretty bleak. Also, as with most other aspects of the hobby there always seems to be something negative popping up that can diminish our enjoyment of the hobby. But as is the case with those things, perseverance pays off in the long run.

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    Anemones are also now banned, so like corals they will need to be propagated, which we have fortunately been able to do.

    So while looking at things now and how dark things may seem, I think it is time to look at some of the things that are going on and try to see if there is still hope for seeing anything positive or if the light at the end of the tunnel really is an oncoming train. Please note that I come from a family where one of my family’s is hope in one hand and crap in the other and see which one fills up faster, so needless to say I was not raised to have unrealistic expectations about the future when things look bad and to have unfounded hope. So while I do not say that I still have hope for the long-term survival of the hobby without just cause, but from my past experience in the hobby I also do not think all is lost, at least not yet. And I also know that there will be bumps on this trip and that some of them will be large.

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    While new equipment like this has made us more successful, the collection and mariculturing of corals has not changed much.

    So why do I think there is still some hope for the future and all is not lost. The first reason I think the hobby will continue to thrive and flourish is because of all of the advancements we have made over the last twenty years and how much we have learned. Considering when the hobby started we were just happy to keep a leather coral or damselfish alive, and now we can not only keep virtually every fish and coral alive but we are now having success propagating many of them. Compare this with the last time when things looked so bleak for the hobby, as just a little as twenty years ago many “knowledgeable” individuals in the hobby said that we would never be able to breed saltwater fish and some heads of public aquariums went further and stated that we also should not even be attempting to keep stony corals as many of the public aquariums could not keep them alive at the time.

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    Fortunately we are now even able to aquaculture corals like this once difficult to keep Goniopora.

    Every year more and more fish are not only being successfully bred, but they are even being raised to saleable size, and in many cases the tank-raised fish do better in our tanks than do wild caught individuals. This may be due to several factors, not the least of which is these fish are already acclimated to captive conditions and they have been weaned away from wild foods and onto a commercially available diet. While these fish may be more expensive than are wild caught fish, the higher cost, at least in my opinion, is justified owing to their not only surviving better in captivity but also because getting them takes heat off the hobby for taking fish from the reef. We also need to utilize captive bred fish more because as we have seen in Hawaii, logic and facts do not preclude the government from acting in an illogical fashion in regards to the hobby. As has been shown in numerous studies, the collection of ornamental fish over the past twenty years in Hawaii has not significantly impacted their populations. Yet the legislature and the judicial branches of the Hawaiian government still ruled to shut down all collection of fish for the hobby, while still allowing unlimited fishing and spearfishing. So the logic of government is such that removing live fish to learn and study and to show individuals the beauty of the reef is bad, while killing them for sport is good.

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    Colonies like this A granulosa will be in limited supply and frags will become even more of a factor in the continued growth in the hobby.

    While this total ban on the collection of all fish from Hawaiian waters is bad enough, my fear is that if this follows the path of government intervention as the result of “do gooders” pushing their agenda, the next step that the Hawaiian government will attempt to take after achieving this ruling, is that it will try to ban fish and corals taken elsewhere that travel through Hawaiian airports on their way to the mainland to also be banned. I know this may sound far-fetched, but after watching smoking originally being banned on airline flights of less than two hours to now where smoking is banned virtually everywhere, I shudder at how incremental government intervention can work. Also for the record, I have never smoked and I applaud the effort to reduce lung cancer, this is just an example of something we may need to worry about as a result of the Hawaiian ban.

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    With the bans continuing it will become more difficult to get rare fish like this peppermint hogfish and Joculator angel.

    Like fish in Hawaii, corals have been banned for at least the last 20 years, corals, live rock, and anemones are also now currently banned from being taken from Fiji and Indonesia. While bans and reductions in the number of corals being taken have occurred in the past, the current bans seem to have more legs and have already produced major disruptions in the supply of corals from these regions. Unfortunately, as is the case in Hawaii, the government has made the ban complete, neglecting that many corals from these regions are now being taken as part of mariculturing and that this practice not only greatly reduces the impact that the hobby has on the reef, but also provides much needed employment to many individuals who live around the reefs. Hopefully, these governments will eventually succumb to the realization that significantly less money is coming in due to these bans, but even if they do not there is still room for hope.

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    A selection of frags like these will be the dominant corals for sale in dealer's tanks instead of the once common colonies.

    Fortunately, over the last 20 years our ability to grow colonies from even the smallest fragments has become the norm rather than an exception. In my opinion, what these bans will do over the long run is make it even more lucrative for coral farmers to aquaculture corals so much so that if the bans last any length of time, some hobbyists will completely abandon purchasing wild corals and only use aquacultured corals, While this practice has undoubtedly already been occurring, these bans will make the practice more widespread, as hobbyists are by our very nature pretty self-reliant. What is interesting is that at present the only area from which wild colonies are coming in with any regularity is Australia, and fortunately for us the Australian government has already established through significant study and analysis that the hobby has minimal effect of the coral population of the Great Barrier Reef, so it has not acted to significantly restrict coral collection or export, while the countries enacting bans have done so for the most part without doing the same level of analysis. So hopefully when these countries do this type of analysis they will also determine that the hobby does not impact the reefs significantly and will lift their bans. However, to be honest, I am not that hopeful about this outcome, as I am still waiting for the Phillipines to lift their ban and allow mariculuted corals to be exported. Corals have now been maricultured there for a number of years, so it would require minimal removal of corals from their reefs to supply the hobby and provide, yet despite this the ban still remains.

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    More hobbyists will begin aquaculturing corals as demand increases for frags.

    There are however some shortcomings that may arise if our hobby does go to an all aquacultured one. First, using nothing but frags to build a reef does require even more patience than is the case when some colonies can be utilized. None of us like the emptiness that is the look of a completely new tank filled only with with frags before they are given a chance to grow in. Developing this level of patience may be difficult, especially for the next generation of hobbyists who are used to receiving gratification quickly. In addition to this, with the demand for frags growing exponentially should these bans continue the rapidly increasing price for these frags may occur even more quickly. It should also be noted that these bans are not just on stony corals but also soft corals and anemones as well. Since many new hobbyists start off with soft corals and these are not aquacultured to the same level as are stony corals this may also keep some new hobbyists from getting into the hobby. As a result, when you couple these higher prices with the requirement of being more patient and limited availability, this may keep many newcomers to the hobby from getting into it. But hopefully, the many positives of the hobby will outweigh this and still draw newcomers in.

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    Australian colonies are fortunately still available but as demand increases it is likely that prices will as well.

    Another potential source of hope from the propagation standpoint, is the work that I pointed out in a previous article being done by Jamie Craggs and several other individuals. Jamie’s work to get corals to spawn on a regular basis and get them to settle out and grow successfully provides hope that his methodology will provide for the demand for corals that will occur should these bans and bleaching events continue. Being able to produce thousands of frag sized mini-colonies from a spawning event at any one time could greatly reduce the cost of for getting started. In addition, as I noted in the article, it also will allow for large numbers of corals to be repopulated onto reefs that are damaged or failing. So in this regard, there is also hope for the long-term survival of the hobby.

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    It is great that beautiful colonies like these were grown from frags, but it takes patience that many of us lack to give corals time to reach this potential.

    Lastly, one of the other aspects of the hobby that will also induce significant change is that while the banning of corals is one of the most visible aspects of these bans, these bans also prohibit the collection of live rock as well. As a result, one of the the things that made the hobby viable in the beginning will no longer be as widely available. As someone who has been an advocate for using “live” live rock instead of dry rock, this will definitely impact how I do things. However, we are fortunate in that over the past few years many hobbyists have not only experiments using dry rock but have also worked to overcome its shortcomings and have become successful using it. So just as the ban on Florida and Hawaiian rock changed how we used live rock, so too will these bans. We are lucky that we already have established a methodology for not using live rock so this change should not significantly have a negative impact on the hobby. However, as with starting with aquacultured corals only this too will require more patience and learning a new methodology.

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    Tanks will start off with dry live rock instead of the live rock that many of us started with.

    While the hobby is at present facing a relatively unknown future, there is still a lot of reason to have optimism and hope. However, it should be noted, as has been the case in the past, things will undoubtedly change significantly in this future and we need to be prepared for it. No longer will we be able to get as many colonies of coral as we want and as much live rock as we need to start a tank. This may result in it taking longer to establish a tank and it will take new techniques and methodologies. However, if things progress as they have in the past, these changes will produce even greater success and achievement in the future. We do however, need to remain vigilant as the individuals advocating these bans, undoubtedly would also like to ban our keeping saltwater tanks and corals in any form. Therefore, we need to support the organizations that are trying to keep our hobby alive as well as the individuals who are helping to keep the hobby moving in a positive direction as well as those propagating the fish and corals we love. We may have to pay a little more in the short term, but that is a little price compared to what the cost would be if none of these animals were available.

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    About Author

    Mike Paletta
    Michael Paletta’s actual career is working in genomics in breast and colon cancer for Genomic Health. He has been an avid reef keeper since 1984. He has kept personal reef aquaria ranging in size from 20 gallons to 1200 gallons and has helped set and build other reef aquaria up to 4,000 gallons in size. He currently maintains several reef aquaria including a 300 gallon sps dominated tank and a 75 lps tank. He has also consulted for The National Aquarium in Baltimore as well the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.

    Michael has published over 100 articles on various aspects of reef keeping in SeaScope, Aquarium Fish Magazine, FAMA, Practical Fishkeeping, and Coral Magazine. He has also published two books: The New Marine Aquarium and Ultimate Reefs. Michael has been invited to speak at various venues around the world and across the country and has given over 200 such talks.
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